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Mayoral candidate Linda Cropp thought she had picked out the perfect forum to drop a campaign bombshell on her rival, front-runner Adrian Fenty.

She chose an Aug. 10 AARP debate at the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation campus in Shipley Terrace to offer up some new allegations that Fenty might have mismanaged a probate case he was appointed to when he worked as a lawyer. Court records show that Fenty resigned as the personal representative of the estate of Herbert Bratton in 2000 after not filing documents required by the court.

The revelation of a second case possibly bungled by Fenty also gave Cropp an excuse to remind voters about his first: another probate matter involving the finances of an elderly man, William Hardy. In that instance, Fenty failed to protect his client’s assets; the D.C. Bar gave him a slap on the wrist, and the court ordered Fenty to pay Hardy’s estate $15,000.

But in an amazing display of political tomfoolery, Cropp’s damning data dump got almost no play in the local media. At a moment when the political chatterers were waiting for the council chairman to go on the offensive, Cropp bungled the bash by ignoring some campaign no-brainers:

No. 1: Foiled Terrorist Plot =

Bad Day to Break a Story

The Cropp team is apparently unfamiliar with the broadcast media’s obsession with terror plots and long lines at airports. It seems the Cropp honchos woke up on Aug. 10, turned on the television news and somehow decided editors would care about a 6-year-old probate case. With boatloads of cash at Cropp’s disposal, she could have paid someone to hatch a more effective scheme for making voters think twice about Fenty’s pledge to make government more accountable.

The television reporter most obsessed with the mayoral race—NBC4’s Tom Sherwood—managed to get his piece on Cropp’s attacks aired at about 6:40 p.m. The Washington Post ran a story that focused on Cropp’s attack and gave little play to the substance of Fenty’s foibles.

No. 2: Let Someone Else

Do the Dirty Work

Cropp didn’t just pick the wrong day for a fight; she unnecessarily soiled her reputation. Let’s face it—Cropp is actually a very nice person, and people know it.

A little “helpful information” handed to a reporter or two on a slow news day would likely have produced more buzz and generated at least one story that didn’t lead by saying Cropp is on the attack—and desperate. Which brings us to…

No. 3: Try Not to Look Desperate

Before the one-on-one Fenty–Marie Johns debate at Ward 8’s Woodland Terrace housing project on Aug. 12, Cropp spokesperson Ron Eckstein camped out nearby, spreading dirt on the front-runner. His handouts included court documents related to the Bratton case signed by Fenty. It marked the first time Cropp & Co. borrowed the campaign strategy favored by fellow mayoral candidates Michael Brown and Vincent Orange—namely, crashing events organized by other candidates.

The mudslinging produced almost nothing. But Cropp wasn’t finished.

The following Monday, the suddenly surly chairman held a press conference to highlight the Bratton case. She again rolled out the court documents signed by Fenty that showed he was assigned to the probate case in 1998. And just to make sure she wasn’t wasting her time, Cropp pressed Fenty for a series of one-on-one debates.

The end result: A Post story headlined “Cropp Presses Fenty for Series of Debates in D.C. Mayor’s Race.” The Bratton case isn’t mentioned until the 14th paragraph, deep into the story’s B5 jump.

Despite all of the Cropp campaign’s blunders in laying on its smear, Fenty didn’t get away clean. Six days turned out to be enough time for Fenty to craft the perfect comeback. Maybe a too-perfect comeback.

In fact, Fenty’s response was so carefully worded that when he appeared before the cameras to answer Cropp’s charges, the confident front-runner was transformed into a robotic mannequin.

In response to his conduct in the Bratton case, Fenty said, “As of right now, there has only been one case that there has ever been a problem with, and I have admitted wrongdoing about that case.” When pressed by reporters, he hit the rewind button: “As of right now there has only been one case that there has ever been a problem, and I have admitted wrongdoing about that case.”

When reporters gave up and switched to Cropp’s debate dare, Fenty again slipped into “Danger, Will Robinson!” mode. “Only one of my opponents has ever called me to challenge me to a debate, and I agreed,” Fenty said. But what about Cropp’s challenge? Like a trained parrot, Fenty repeated his statement nearly verbatim at least twice more, an awkward sequence that was aired by Sherwood.

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Fenty’s campaign declined to let the candidate repeat the phrase one more time for LL.

THE BARRY MACHINE

These days, most citywide candidates are a bit wary of winning the endorsement of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr.

But not Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Ward 8 coordinator, Jacque Patterson. He’s not only getting Barry’s backing for his school-board bid, he’s also been recruited by the political icon.

At least that’s how Patterson and several other Ward 8 activists tell it.

Patterson was so pleased to confirm the backing of the ward’s unchallenged leader that he walked LL over to Barry, so his patron could elaborate on his latest behind-the-scenes moves. “First of all, I won’t have any comment for him,” Barry told Patterson as he gestured toward LL. “He’s a terrible reporter.” The only thing LL was able to confirm was that Barry’s ban on talking to the Washington City Paper is still in effect.

But Barry can’t stop the chatter that he’s turned against incumbent D.C. School Board member William Lockridge, who, along with Patterson, ran for the Ward 8 council seat in 2004.

Sure, Lockridge and Barry have some policy differences when it comes to education. Lockridge has raised concerns about the growth of charter schools; Barry is a charter booster. The councilmember takes the rational approach that some east-of-the-river schools will need to be closed; the school-board rep plays on the emotional aspects of the issue for political gain.

But what’s really stoking the Barry–Patterson alliance is ambition—Lockridge’s, to be precise. He’s run for the Ward 8 council seat twice and doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants to make a career out of a $15,000-per-year school-board post. Outside of Barry and former councilmember Sandy Allen, Lockridge is probably the most visible politician in the ward. It’s the kind of exposure that makes a wily operator like Barry a bit uneasy.

Lockridge doesn’t understand the snub and won’t yet concede that he’ll be running against the Barry mystique in November. When Lockridge confronted Barry at the Fenty–Johns debate, nothing was settled. “Marion says to me that he hasn’t made a decision on who he is supporting,” says Lockridge. “He wouldn’t disrespect me by making a decision without having a conversation with me about it. I will respect that.”

But during his years of activism, Lockridge has learned how to gauge the chatter among Ward 8’s political class. He’s not expecting Barry to be in his corner.

“The rumor mill is saying that he has already made his decision,” says Lockridge. “I’ll give him an opportunity to support me, but my gut feeling is he will support Jacque Patterson.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Apparently, every money-starved candidate but one in the 2006 election battle has overlooked an obvious source of campaign cash in the District.

LL speaks, of course, of Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi.

Councilmembers never tire of asking Gandhi how their latest bills will hit the District’s bottom line. They demand cost analyses for every project. He’s Mr. Money.

But At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson is the only local pol to get more-direct financial aid from the mild-mannered bean-counter this campaign season: Gandhi dropped $50 on Mendelson’s re-election effort.

Was it because Mendelson was so polite when Gandhi was getting reamed during the baseball debate? Is there some personal relationship no one is aware of?

In an e-mail about the “Why Phil?” question, Gandhi sent this reply through a spokesperson: “In response to your question about his contribution to Mr. Mendelson, Dr. Gandhi contributed because he was asked to by Mr. Mendelson.” Past elections have seen Gandhi contributions to Williams and Ward 8 activist Eugene Dewitt Kinlow. “The same reasoning lies behind Dr. Gandhi’s previous contributions to the mayor and Mr. Kinlow,” the e-mail concludes.

JOHNS–FENTY DEBATE POTPOURRI

By Barry standards, his arrival 30 minutes after the 9 a.m. debate kickoff meant he was running right on schedule. But seeing Barry at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday sent murmurs through the crowd at Woodland Terrace, which had a hard time recognizing the notorious night owl in the morning light. The debaters went through several rounds before Fenty or Johns even saw their host. “We would be remiss if we didn’t introduce the councilmember from Ward 8, Marion Barry,” Fenty finally said several minutes after Barry’s entrance, before highlighting that he and Barry shared the same vision of health care for the city.

How did Woodland Terrace residents figure out that most of the crowd was from the other side of the river? If a majority-white audience wasn’t enough of a clue, D.C. State Committee member Dan Wedderburn sealed the deal. The event was originally supposed to be moderated by WOL- and XM-Radio talk-show host and Ward 8 resident Joe “The Black Eagle” Madison.

When Woodland Terrace activist Steve Zanders— who, like Madison, is black—took to the microphone, Wedderburn—a bald white man—yelled out: “The Black Eagle!”

LL overheard someone from the neighborhood mutter, “That guy sure as hell don’t know no Black Eagle.”—James Jones

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